Film screening sparks vital conversations on campus around race

Last week, Vassar screened the documentary “I’m Not a Racist...Am I?,” which follows several high school students from different backgrounds as they learn about race. The screenings were required for all first-year students./ Courtesy of Ed Pittman

Vassar is no utopia. The idea that this space is a liberal haven—free of social prejudice simply due to the progressive values seemingly imbibed by our student population—is an easy screen to hide behind. The reality is that our campus is just as susceptible to prejudice as any other campus in the US, and the Vassar Bubble is not going to protect us from that.

In recognition and response to the fact that racial bias does indeed exist here, the Offices of Campus Life and Diversity and Residential Life and the Engaged Pluralism Initiative—along with the Drama and Film Departments—came together to host screenings of a documentary titled “I’m Not a Racist…Am I?” for first-year students, in a significant move by the administration. Attendance at the screenings was required of all first-year students, and each screening was followed by small group discussions facilitated by faculty and administrators in order to give students the opportunity to voice their reactions to the film, discuss how they perceive issues of racism and think about the role it plays in their own lives.

A feature documentary that specifically aims to deconstruct race in the United States, “I’m Not a Racist…Am I?” highlighted what confronting racism looks like for the next generation. It depicts 12 teenagers from New York City, coming together to discuss race, racism and privilege in a series of workshops and conversations with friends and family members. The group of teenagers hail from different racial backgrounds and ethnicities, allowing for a multitude of perspectives to be brought in regarding race. As its website indicates, “‘I’m Not Racist…Am I?’ was co-produced by The Calhoun School and Point Made Films…a larger initiative designed to transform a silenced conversation and fundamentally alter the dialogue surrounding white privilege and structural and systemic racism for K–12th grade students, their parents and teachers” (I’m Not a Racist…Am I?, “Filmmakers”).

This film was brought to Vassar as a collaborative effort between several departments and administrative offices, particularly through the efforts of Associate Professor and Chair of Drama Shona Tucker, Associate Film Professor Mia Mask and Associate Dean for Campus Life and Diversity Edward Pittman.

The process started with Tucker, who first saw the documentary at her son’s junior high school. She explained, “It was imperative after I saw the snippets at PDS [Poughkeepsie Day School] with my 11-year-old that I bring the film to Vassar if I could. We all need tools to talk about race. It isn’t an easy topic for folks to embrace. We need a way to open up but not be left raw.” From there on, Tucker began conversations with Mask about how it could fit in at Vassar.

Mask commented on how their work began two years ago: “We started to look into this documentary in response to a time when Vassar’s campus had become a hotbed of social unrest. We saw the film as a great teaching tool, and while we recognize it isn’t perfect, we thought this cultural programming could possibly help our community heal, igniting healthier conversations which acknowledges that there is indeed a problem.”

Tucker and Mask, along with administrators, were involved in a great deal of research and planning regarding these screenings. They organized pilot screenings for senior administrators, followed by another screening for faculty and students from various class years, many of whom the professors had identified as being involved in social justice work on campus.

Pittman further elaborated, “The 20 to 30 students who attended the pilot screening last November gave us feedback on the value and relevance of the film, and, having once been first- years themselves, they suggested that it would be a good thing to show the incoming class.”

Pittman further commented that the focus on first-years was intended: “The conversations turn out to be very different with new students as opposed to with students who have been here for a while, and we wanted to give first-years that space to talk alongside other new students like themselves.” He explained that they had made attendance of a screening of the film required for all first-years because, while no real consequences would have occurred if they chose not to attend, it was important for them to have conversations about broader issues like race, bias and oppression that impact their daily lives.

“I’m Not a Racist…Am I?” ultimately aims to educate the participating high school students in the documentary about what structural racism actually is, and how it functions in the United States to benefit white people, as explained in the documentary. It makes the distinctions that individual meanness or bigotry that people of color could exhibit towards white people is very different from racism, which fundamentally, due to its systemic nature, can only be exercised by those who are white because that is the group that benefits from white privilege, at the expense of people of color. The film aimed to demonstrate to the students featured, as well to audiences, that white folk will always ascend as a result of institutional structures that favor them, while people of color are held back, falling on the opposite side of white privilege.

First-years attended one of the three required screenings of the film “I’m Not a Racist…Am I?”/ Courtesy of Ed Pittman

First-year Sefa February voiced her thoughts on the film: “I think it’s a good starting point, and they needed to start somewhere, but there’s a lot more to delve into. For example, the film didn’t really talk about how you have to not only acknowledge your privilege, but acknowledge that you have it because someone else doesn’t; because it was taken from their share. And that acknowledgement should eventually turn into action. It’s not enough to just talk about it but not do anything about it. So this conversation should by no means be over.”

It’s an interesting experience for the first- years to be educated about an issue by watching other young people become educated about it. Watching the film’s high school students engage in conversations where they begin to actually understand the problem—and have to confront their own racial biases and ignorance in the process—was a mechanism by which dialogue was fostered among first-year audiences during the facilitated discussions after the screening.

Director of the ALANA Center Wendy Maragh Taylor, who acted as a facilitator for these talks, explained, “The film is relevant no matter how you look at it, but particularly, it’s important to note that if we indeed want an inclusive campus, then we must have honest conversations about all of our differences and the intersections of those, and this specific film helps us get started on at least one of those conversations, one related to race.”

Pittman also explained that the facilitated discussions of about 10 students per groups which followed the screening were extremely intentional: “We wanted the students to have a smaller, more intimate setting to share what they’re thinking comfortably. We also didn’t want to the film to impress a uniform idea upon them but rather give them the space to share their interpretations based on their own experiences, and talk it out amongst each other.”

Mask elaborated on the discussion function of the film as well: “This film is actually not even available to be bought independently online because it is designed to be facilitated. It requires healthy dialogue later to deconstruct it, otherwise the purpose is lost.”

After the screening, students were asked to shout out one word that captured how they felt, and one student said, “Underrepresented.” Several students shared this sentiment regarding a lack of representation for non-Black people of color because, although there were high schoolers featured from various racial backgrounds, the debate seemed to center around Black-white relations in the U.S. In an email to the administration, some of these students shared their concerns, stating, “There are 216 non-Black POCs in the [first-year] class, and they deserve as much representation.”

Mask acknowledged that their criticisms were absolutely valid, and explained, “The Vassar community is very intelligent and sophisticated so I hope they know that this film was not trying to be a catch-all or solution to racism. It’s only meant to be a potential beginning—a start to talking about structural racism in an open way, and we recognize that it only scratches the surface. We definitely want to take this constructive criticism into account so that we can build on these conversations in the future.”

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